Excerpted from “The Big Gig” by Zoro
© 2011 Alfred Music Publishing
Used with permission
There are many aspects of musicianship you must develop in order to master your instrument and become a great performer. Much of the challenge lies in knowing what exactly you should be working on. The following are what I refer to as the four T’s of a master musician: time, technique, touch, and taste. for a musician, these sensory perceptions are the equivalent of the universal five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) that we use to receive and transmit information about our world.
You could look at the four T’s as the operating system for your musical computer. By design, every musician uses this same operating system to create, but the beauty is that each responds intuitively in a unique way based on the software installed on his or her own hard drive. This software represents musical data that was input at some point in its development. In an effort to improve our software, we should be consistently backing up the information we have learned in an effort to retain it, as well as periodically making updates in order to acquire more knowledge.
I view all of this musical input like the colors assembled on an artist’s palette. It’s liberating to know that you have a potpourri of vibrant colors to choose from when you paint your masterpiece. oftentimes, underdeveloped musicians use only primary colors like a child with a small box of crayons. however, it’s reassuring to have exotic colors like chartreuse, indigo, and crimson, which only come in the big box of 64 crayons, for times when no other color would tell the story better. as musicians, we need every color of the rainbow to help us express our musicality.
Make preparations in advance.
You never have trouble if you are prepared for it.
If you are a vocalist, your voice must be developed like any instrument. Most of the following musical principles, such as developing a strong sense of time, will relate to you, but in addition to those, you have some essentials that apply specifically to singers. Those key components to master are your pitch, tone, breathing, diction, and phrasing. When coupled with a sense of soul and style, total mastery over these elements is the recipe for a great vocalist.
ROCK STEADY BABY
No matter which instrument you play, you will need to define time in various forms. Whether you’re grooving or soloing, all the chops in the world are useless if you can’t keep them within the framework of solid time. Think of time as the process of creating and keeping a consistent pulse. It is comprised of three elements: meter, subdivision, and time bending.
Meter is the reliably predictable pulse of a quarter note flow at any BPM (beats per minute). The second component of time is the subdivision. Subdivisions are the various partials of beats evenly divided into smaller segments of time, such as eighth notes and sixteenth notes.
The third element is time within the time, which I think of as “time bending.” It refers to the manipulation of time in any direction within any specified subdivided grouping. This involves bending the time ever so slightly to achieve a certain feel within the music. There are three terms most commonly used to describe this time bending concept. The first is known as playing “slightly laid back” or “behind the beat.” as you play a pattern in time, you are always just a hair behind the quarter note pulse of a metronome, yet not so far behind that you actually get off beat and turn the metronome’s quarter note click into the upbeat or the “and” of the beat. Turning the metronome’s downbeat into an upbeat is a mistake known as “turning the beat around.”
“Dead center on the beat” refers to playing a pattern so perfectly with the metronome that you bury the sound of the quarter note click and are totally synchronized with the pulse. In this second time bending option, you are neither ahead nor behind the metronome’s perfect pulse, but right with it.
Lastly, “ahead of the beat” refers to playing a pattern just a millisecond in front of the metronome’s perfect quarter note pulse. You continuously push the pattern ever so slightly ahead of the metronome, but again, not enough to get out of sync with the metronome and turn the beat around. These time bending effects can be used throughout an entire song, for a short phrase or passage, or for a singular particular pattern, scale, fill, or riff.
Some players naturally have steady overall meter, but they are challenged when it comes to controlling subdivisions with precision or being able to bend time to achieve the desired feel of the music. It is only by mastering the combination of meter, subdivisions, and time bending that the full gamut of masterful timekeeping can be achieved. If there is solid meter but the subdivisions are inconsistent, the musical passages will waver and therefore be unstable. If a player is unable to delicately bend the time in multiple directions, then the music can tend to sound one-dimensional.
A good way of looking at these three elements of timekeeping is to relate them to the experience of watching a movie in 3-D. Movies in 3-D give a film a sense of realism that cannot be attained with a flat two-dimensional picture.
One of the best ways to develop a strong sense of time is to practice regularly with a subdivided “click track,” a fancy name for an electronic metronome. There are many models available on the market and even a wide variety of phone apps that feature subdivision technology. at It is only by mastering the combination of meter, subdivisions, and time bending that the full gamut of masterful timekeeping can be achieved. first, playing to the metronome might feel a little like having your hands tied behind your back and then being asked to karate chop bricks in half, but you’ll get used to it in no time.
Start by playing any kind of repetitive groove, pattern, scale, chord progression, or whatever pertains to your instrument until you are comfortable with it. Practice with both a straight and swing feel, and play phrases that are slightly behind the beat, dead on the center of the beat, and pushed just ahead of the beat. Then you can practice short fills or riffs and longer solo ideas applying a variety of subdivisions.
You should also learn to feel short phrases, starting with two to four bars, then eight to sixteen bars, and then finally, thirty-two bars. When you get lost, go back to where you departed and start over. Your ear will get better as you go. This will help you hear and feel all of the subdivisions while simultaneously developing your internal clock.
Throughout your career as a musician, you will inevitably play every conceivable tempo, so it’s imperative that you practice playing everything to a wide variety of tempos so you’re comfortable with all of them.
Usually I’m concentrating on the quarter notes. That’s where my
focus has to be to keep the tempo locked. Whatever subdivisions
I play in those spaces, I make sure they’re locked in with the quarter
note so that I don’t rush them… I just try to be part of the foundation.
DIDN’T I BLOW YOUR MIND THIS TIME?
We have just learned the importance of mastering the art of timekeeping. however, a big part of controlling time and subdivisions is purely technical. Technique is how you execute what you are playing. regardless of the style, technique is required in order to make the music flow, and there is a definite technical art to singing as well as playing each separate component of your instrument.
Good technique involves a variety of approaches to your instrument and every instrument has its own unique set of variables. Depending on your instrument, this can range from finger and wrist control to intonation, tone, and proper breathing techniques.
Independence is also an essential element of every musician’s technique. for a piano player, this would mean being able to play chords with your right hand while simultaneously playing a bass line on the lower keys with your left hand. for a drummer, it means being able to play something in one limb that is rhythmically independent from the remaining three limbs. Independence is merely the ability to play finger and limb configurations independently of one another to create some kind of rhythmic and melodic counterpoint. Playing one rhythm compounded against another one without losing the first rhythm is the basis of all independence and creates a polyrhythm which brings tension and excitement to the music. Great musicianship is achieved by employing a combination of techniques to serve the music with the greatest possible depth of expression.
You arrive at your sound and touch through the techniques you employ. I use a variety of methods; it’s not an either/or, but rather an amalgamation of numerous unique approaches to my instrument. Some people are under the erroneous assumption that playing something simple doesn’t involve good technique, but I am here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth! It takes an incredible amount of facility—or “chops,” as we musicians refer to it—to play any musical phrase or pattern in a smooth and confident manner.
If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.
Every instrument has its own set of technical challenges, and having highly developed chops is how you meet those challenges. I am not merely referring to being able to play a particular pattern at a blazing speed. You must also possess adequate chops in order to play specific parts, grooves, patterns, feels, and fills in a seemingly effortless manner. I call that “Groove Chops,” and every musician, regardless of instrument, needs them. Chops are never the enemy of musicality. The enemy is the misuse of chops by using them in an unmusical fashion.
Overplaying is one of the best examples of being unmusical, and it’s an offense practiced by many immature musicians. an example would be a singer who is asked to perform the national anthem at a ball game. Instead of just singing the beautiful melody the way it was written, they sing complicated vocal riffs throughout the entire song to demonstrate their technical prowess. They do this to bring attention to themselves rather than selflessly serving the song. Due to a lack of discipline and maturity, they butcher a perfectly beautiful song by over-singing it. Instead of leaving the proper rests in the song, they take it upon themselves to fill in every bit of space with more annoying and uninvited dramatic notes.
As a man grows older and wiser, he talks less and says more.
Seasoned musicians refer to this overplaying as “musical diarrhea.” The equivalent would be writers who constantly use fancy words to flex their literary muscles. In an effort to impress you with their vocabulary, they miss the whole point, which is to serve the story and communicate the message as clearly as possible in a way that serves the reader’s needs, not their own.
Only a sensitive musician has the discretion to play just what’s necessary for each song—nothing more and nothing less. If you have incredible technique, chops, rhythmic control, and independence, and know how to use it all, then you would be considered a great musician.
At the end of the day, we’re all playing from the same foundational music concepts. Touch is what makes each musician an individual, and the only thing that sets us apart from one another. Part of your touch is the unique way you produce a sound through your instrument and the actual tone you get out of it. Do you get a flat, squeaky, squashy dead sound, or a fat, plush, round, beautifully full tone that’s based on a superior touch to the instrument? Touch also involves what I call your “Inner Dynamic Mix,” or the tonal balance with which you play your instrument.
As a drummer, my Inner Dynamic Mix is determined by the natural balance with which I play my bass drum, hi-hat, ride cymbal, and snare drum. The volume relationship of these components is what constitutes the total sound of my instrument. In essence, musicians are really sound engineers who determine their mix long before there is a microphone or direct box anywhere in sight. amplification devices will only reproduce the sounds emanating from within the tonal spectrum of your instrument, which inevitably comes from the way you play it.
A part of your touch also encompasses control of your instrument through a wide variety of dynamic markings. It’s a great challenge to maintain steady timekeeping while engaging in drastic volume changes and dispersing random accents throughout an arrangement. It takes incredible control to play with fire and passion at ultra low dynamic markings, but playing quiet is not a license to be wimpy or indifferent. Playing quieter doesn’t mean playing more slowly, but slowing down is often what happens when an unseasoned musician is asked to lower their volume. You can certainly roar like a lion at a soft dynamic marking, but that takes incredible touch. Intensity is often mistaken for volume when control is really the name of the game.
Conversely, playing louder doesn’t mean playing faster, but speeding up is what frequently happens when an inexperienced musician is asked to play with more volume. all truly great players are able to play in time while expressing themselves within a huge dynamic range. Devoting serious time to practicing dynamics while maintaining the pulse of time will greatly enhance your ability to adapt to any musical situation and give the greatest range of emotional expression on your instrument.
When music fails to agree to the ear, to soothe the ear and
the heart and the senses, then it has missed the point.
A masterful touch is one of the biggest indicators of great musicianship. I find myself naturally attracted to the sound of players who demonstrate a beautiful balance on their instruments and exemplify the essence of touch.
Touch is just as much about emotion as anything else. The amount of your soul you invest into the music will partly determine your touch. are you all the way vested in the music or are you emotionally indifferent? What specific emotions are at play while you are performing on your instrument? are you playing with a sense of joy or angst? There is no right or wrong emotion, per se; the question is whether or not the full state of your heart is engaged as you play.
There is no possible way to separate the emotional and spiritual aspects of your humanity from how you approach playing your instrument. This is what ultimately allows your musicianship to distinguish itself from others in a supernatural way.
Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, and invents.
—Ludwig van Beethoven
MY FAVORITE THINGS
Taste is your intuitive ability to play what’s right for the music. This skill comes from listening and by developing a vast musical vocabulary. knowing what to play at any given moment is an instinctive reaction derived from having studied the classic music that best represents the genre of music you are trying to play.
Long before the modern musical notation system came into being, music was perceived and conceived by the human ear. Though you may have incredible chops and independence, you will only be able to play what you can conceive in your mind. You can never play what you can’t hear, so it is critical to broaden your musical horizons and take in as much music as you can.
Every genre of music has a standard set of songs, seminal recordings, and influential artists that define it. This vital information must be ingrained in your spirit if you are to perform it convincingly. If you wish to play anything authentically and tastefully, you must have intimate knowledge of the original sources of what you are attempting to emulate.
To me, the hardest thing about being a musician is knowing which musical choice to make at any given moment. The fact is that no one can be with you at the moment of musical conception when an idea is birthed. We’re all alone at that time, and what we choose to play will be based on all of our past experiences, both as a listener and as a student of the music. What makes a musician great is what’s in between the ears—musical intuition.
Sometimes it takes hearing a more experienced musician approach the music you’re attempting to play before you can begin to hear other possibilities. By intensely observing the habits and performances of great musicians and then emulating them, you will eventually be able to discern what is required for each job.
Most recording artists and producers will reference music they are familiar with when trying to describe what it is they want you to play. In actuality, it would help you to think more like an actor than a musician. To the best of your ability, determine ahead of time what is needed and then show up ready to play that role. Don’t be the actor who has no idea what the director’s motivation is. You’ll never land a gig as a freelance musician if you don’t understand what the role entails. Your goal should always be to perform as a great accompanist and accommodate the needs of the other musicians by rolling out the red carpet for them.
I write the music, produce it and the band
plays within the parameters that I set.
When my children, Jarod and Jordan, were just three years old, I taught them the meaning of the word “wisdom.” I broke it down into an age-appropriate definition a toddler could grasp: “Wisdom means making the right choice.”
as musicians, we need the wisdom to make the right musical choices. In order to make those choices, however, you will need a paradigm shift in your thinking. It’s not about you; it’s always about the music. Serve the song, the artist, and other musicians, and facilitate their musical dreams. If you can do that, other musicians will naturally love to play with you.
The Big Gig is much more than just an intriguing and comprehensive insider’s guide to breaking into the music industry as an independent musician. Compelling and thought-provoking, it is an excellent resource for leadership training, networking techniques, and personal development. The Big Gig is the first book that describes the inner workings of the highly competitive music industry as seen through the eyes of a world-renowned and highly successful musician. The Big Gig provides a template for success by covering the vocational, personal, and spiritual aspects of a musician’s life. The Big Gig is much more than educational. It is inspirational, motivational, and life-changing.